Let me say right up front that It Comes at Night is exceptionally well-made. The performances are, to a person, as good as one could hope. Ultimately, however, the film is an empty, forgettable experience that lays all the groundwork needed to become something spectacular and then just tosses it all away in order to simply say “Don’t ever do anything nice for anybody.” Or maybe “You’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you.” Heavy spoilers ahead. A lot is being made about the ambiguity of the film, and after watching It Comes at Night, I have to wonder if audiences are so used to having plot spoon fed to them that they’ve simply forgotten what ambiguity actually means. First of all, this story is told in a post-plague world and follows a family living in the woods in a magnificent, boarded up house. The film opens with a tight shot of an old man, obviously infected with something horrible. This is Bud (David Pendleton), father of Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), father-in-law of Paul (Joel Edgerton), and grandfather of Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Because this is film and not a short story, everything we need to know is told to us visually. Paul and Sarah wear gas masks and heavy rubber gloves as they ease Bud into a wheelbarrow. Then Paul and Travis take Bud into the woods, shoot him in the head, dump his body into a pre-dug grave and burn him. It’s harrowing and writer/director Trey Edward Shults pulls no punches with the scene. Shults and his cinematographer Drew Daniels craft every shot meticulously and as we watch the flames reflected in Travis’ gas mask, we begin to understand that he will be our eyes and ears. This is a very bold choice, in that it means despite the fact that films like this, which deal with family dynamics in a post-apocalypse usually prioritize the perspective of the father, or in some cases, the mother. When the teenage child is the focus, it tends to mean we have a film that is going to mirror the emotional (or even hormonal) swings of someone not quite prepared to deal with or understand their situation. And Travis is a little bit creepy. He enjoys creeping up to the attic where he can hear everybody in the house, no matter how private they think their conversations are. He also has a huge print of The Triumph of Death by 16th-century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel hanging on his bedroom wall. If the opening scene of a plague-infected grandpa wasn’t clear enough for you, here’s a heavy-handed symbol to make it clear. There’s a plague. Our family is in isolation trying to survive. Simple as that, really. No, really. It is. Forget what the commercials and the marketing campaign might have tried to make you believe. It’s just that simple. There’s a plague. When you’re infected, you begin to show symptoms within a day or so. You don’t need to know how it’s transmitted. You don’t need to know how it started. It Comes at Night isn’t about any of that. We can assume from the very opening moments of the film that the film is going to be about surviving and the hard choices that good people have to make to survive. In that way, it’s very similar to another recent film that touches on many of these ideas: the Danish zombie film What We Become (2015). That film also focuses on a small family, this time forced into isolation, quarantined in their home by the military while they deal with a zombie plague. However, up until an hour into its runtime, we never see any zombies. For all we know, it’s just a plague movie. Also like It Comes at Night, it’s beautifully shot and the performances are very good. But because it takes place in a suburb, and is actually a zombie film, the final twenty minutes become cookie cutter and what could have been something special ends up being a boring waste of time. Because we live in a zombie-saturated mediascape, it’s totally understandable to think that the plague, in this case, might also be leading to monsters, shambling or otherwise, lurking in the woods to leap out and eat our heroes. Not having monsters is not this film’s problem. More about that as we go on. We’re also introduced early on to the narrative device of Travis’ dreams. Because we’re dealing with a very realistic narrative, the dreams serve a few different functions. First, and most importantly, they give us insight into Travis’ mindset. He’s just watched his grandfather shot in the head and burned to ash, so naturally, his disease-ridden grandfather is a central image (this is the image the marketing is capitalizing on and is totally misleading). Travis also dreams of his own infection. There’s nothing else to suggest that he’s infected other than the dreams, so I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that he is. He’s an anxiety-ridden, artistic weirdo teen who just watched someone he loves waste away in a matter of days and then has to be killed and disposed of brutally. The second reason for the dreams is to allow some slight narrative ambiguity (there’s that word used correctly), so Shults can play with the viewers’ expectations about what is real and what isn’t. The thing is, the dreams are clearly demarcated as dreams with shots of Travis actually going to sleep and then waking up. We even get the cliché classic, fake wake-up scenario at one point, which brings us to the third, and most crassly manipulative reason for the dreams. Because there are no real monsters, or even any real horror beyond a steady buildup of psychological tension, it allows the film to have its cheap jump scares while maintaining an attitude of superior distance from those more shallow horror films. Shults wants to have his cake and eat it too. Ultimately, the dreams’ initial effect of letting us see inside Travis’ mind is only somewhat effective. The dreams provide no actual exploration of his emotional state or give us any insight into his motivations. They could be cut entirely and the film would be stronger for it. But back to the plot. In the middle of the night, Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into the house, scavenging for water, food, and supplies. He is promptly beaten unconscious, tied to a tree and left overnight to see if he displays any signs of infection. This is a classic narrative move, forcing us to question whether or not we trust Will as we watch Paul going through the same mental gymnastics. This seems to be another point where audiences are misguidedly concerned with “ambiguity.” When Will claims that he, his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) are at his brother’s house we can go along with Paul and believe him. If he had friends with him, they could have easily freed him during the night, so it’s a safe bet to trust him at this point in the story. Plus, they have goats and chickens! So when they get less than ten miles from home and are ambushed by two generic guys, it’s logical to wonder whether or not Will was in on it, but, as he points out, he nearly beat one of their attackers to death while Paul killed the other. Ultimately, it’s a moot point. Yes, that’s right. Whether Will was in cahoots with them or not is totally irrelevant to the story. Why? Because the narrative makes it irrelevant. The direction, the acting, and the script all combine to make it a question that doesn’t need an answer beyond the one given. We can accept Will’s innocence at face value because there’s nothing else in the film to make it a point that matters. This is driven home by the fact that Shults doesn’t feel there’s any need for us to continue on this road trip. Instead we just cut to a couple of days later as Paul and Will return with Kim and Andrew (and the goats and chickens). Because there has been no movement on that narrative front, the film is telling us in no uncertain terms that Will and his family are no overt threat. At this point, the only real existential question the film is raising is whether or not it is good to help someone in need. It lays out the risks, there’s a brief discussion, and Sarah is the voice of reason. If Will isn’t lying, then the two families would be stronger together. So when they come together, things are hunky dory. This is where the film begins to lay out a few different potential conflicts: Paul’s subtle jealousy of Will as Will bonds with Travis, and Travis’ obvious attraction to Kim. While establishing this groundwork for what could become a powerful psychological exploration of power and family, we instead get the family dog running off after something or someone we never see. The dog disappears and we never know what happened to it. But again, it doesn’t matter. It’s a feint to distract you and make you uneasy about the woods and the mysterious apocalypse going on out there. It’s manipulation that doesn’t add anything to an otherwise strong story except that it does push Travis into an even more isolated psychological headspace – and that should be a good thing. But Shults’ script isn’t ready to commit to that sort of emotional exploration. Instead, it falls back on jump scares and paranoia. Now, at this point the film has established that Travis likes to sneak around and listen to people without their knowing it, but it’s played as though he’s almost autistic rather than a creeper. His obsessive sketching of gas mask-wearing people in the woods is another creepy bit that seems to be establishing a potential plot development that is never followed up on. He has a late-night conversation with Kim in the kitchen which ends abruptly when she catches him ogling her breasts. He then has a sexy nightmare of Kim straddling him before vomiting black ooze into his mouth. The film is clearly setting up Travis for some sort of pivotal moment. And then we get it. On one of his nightly jaunts around the house, Travis finds little Andrew asleep and whimpering in the floor of his grandfather’s old room. He wakes up the child and leads him back to his parents’ room and watches lovingly as he crawls back in bed with them and they all snuggle without really waking up and seeing him. It’s a touching moment despite Travis’ inherent creepiness. Then he hears something downstairs and goes to investigate. We see this entire sequence from his perspective. There’s no visual marker to establish any of this sequence as a dream. Those rules have been set already and Shults doesn’t invoke them here. So we can read all of this at face value, Travis found Andrew, took him back to bed, and then heard something downstairs. When he investigates, he finds the Red Door open and hears movement inside the makeshift decontamination room. He panics and runs to get his dad and that’s when Paul and Will find the dog, sick, bleeding, and infected with whatever plague is, um, plaguing the countryside. This leads to a quick and merciful killing, followed by a burning and burying. And this is where the film collapses thematically and emotionally. But it’s also where a simple line or two of dialogue could have saved the entire thing. In a tense discussion around the kitchen table, Travis reveals that the Red Door was already open when he discovered it. He never touched it. We were shown this and there’s nothing in the film to establish that this is an untrustworthy narrative. The filmic language is telling us that Travis isn’t lying because we experienced it with him. So the question becomes, did Andrew sleepwalk downstairs, open the door and find the dog, and then go curl up on the floor of Grandpa’s room, infected with the plague? All signs point to yes. And by signs, of course, I mean the directorial choices of Shults. There is no ambiguity here. He’s not telling you flat out that Andrew is infected, but visual narrative makes it clear. It’s not ambiguous just because it’s not spoken in dialogue. This is film. That’s how film works. The visual language of film, unless demarcated with clues to establish unreliability, works contrary to what the characters say. And the film has established that Travis is our actual point-of-view instead of the dueling fathers, who aren’t really dueling and instead are actually becoming friends – despite the slip of the tongue regarding Will’s “brother.” You see, while drinking with Paul, Will admits to being an only child, despite having said earlier that his family was at his brother’s house. He explains it away by saying he meant his brother-in-law who was like a brother to him. It’s a narrative point that in the context of the film only serves to create distrust for the audience (and Paul). It literally serves no other purpose than to force paranoia into the plot. It doesn’t elaborate on any theme or reveal character. Indeed, as with everything else we’ve seen in the film, it can be taken at face value. Even if it was some sort of dark secret or mysterious lie, it has no bearing on anything in the film. It exists solely to undermine the audience’s and Paul’s trust of Will. So the filmmaking choices have led us to this point, where it’s most likely that Andrew is infected and has probably infected Travis. By extension, both of the children have potentially infected the parents. At this point, it’s just a matter of waiting to see how Shults is going to stage the unraveling of these two families. And like clockwork, Andrew begins acting sick, Will and Kim plan to slip away, then Paul and Sarah plan to stop them. This conflict is forced by Travis and his sneaky creeping after he slinks up to the attic and hears Will and Kim planning their escape. He alerts his parents, and their paranoia kicks in – they can’t let them leave since they might come back and try to take their stuff. This, of course, leads to chaos, confrontation, guns, and death. Sarah shoots Will, and Paul murders both Kim and little Andrew while Travis watches. There are no surprises here. Everything you expect to happen, happens. And then the film ends with Travis infected and dying, leaving his parents also infected and dying. Which means that Andrew did actually sleepwalk, open the door, get infected by the dog, pass the infection on to Travis, and then they all die because you SHOULD NEVER HELP ANYBODY. There is no ambiguity. There is no unreliable narrator. There is a family who tried to help another family whose child brought plague into the house. If they had shot Will in the head when they caught him breaking in, they would have lived and Kim and Andrew would have lived. Or even darker, if they had found out where Will’s family was first, they could have stolen their goats and chickens and maybe “gotten a wife” for Travis. But It Comes at Night isn’t concerned with the existential questions of what are we willing to do to protect our families or what can motivate us to do evil in the name of good? It isn’t even really concerned with the emotional dynamics of two families forced to live under one roof, despite planting narrative seeds that could easily have been explored. Instead, the film works as a simple (maybe too simple) surface narrative that, while using dreams liberally throughout, has no interest in actually exploring psychology or subtext. It’s not even interested in creating dramatic twists or utilizing the psychological elements it clearly establishes. I don’t like to go off on tangents of “what I would have done” or propose alternate storylines or endings that I think would be better. That gets us in the realm of fan fiction and self-aggrandizement. But Shults’ script for It Comes at Night does a lot of narrative work establishing a world and characters and plot developments that are simply tossed out the window, undermining the dramatic impact of its climax while also simplifying the thematic impact to one of base paranoia and nihilism. The film seems to want Travis to be responsible for the murderous climax, but it blinks at the last minute, either with concern that making a biracial, possibly autistic teen a villain, or because Shults thinks things like structure and film language are there to be subverted and It Comes at Night is somehow intellectually superior to the genre it wallows in (in much the same way Michael Haneke’s Funny Games tried to shamelessly utilize home invasion horror convention while condescendingly trying to subvert it). If Travis had opened the door but denied it (or even better, was sleepwalking – which is a potential plot thread in the script when Paul asks if Andrew sleepwalks – simply saying that Travis did when he was little would have opened that door and provided real ambiguity), we would get to the same ending but suddenly it has seismic emotional ramifications. A family would have been murdered for no reason other than a creepy teen’s refusal to take responsibility for his actions, or even better, a creepy teen who hoped he could force his “romantic rival” out of the house. If Travis’ dreams of infection were psychological, visual representations of his moral disintegration, how much more powerful would that murder scene be? How much more powerful would Paul and Sarah surviving be, knowing that they’d murdered a family for no reason whatsoever? Is that too Hollywood? Is that too cliché? I don’t know. It’s what I expected to happen, and when it didn’t, it was bland and disappointing. The emotional impact was gone because instead of being about characters choosing to do horrible things and paying the price, it was instead about characters choosing to do horrible things, but being justified, really. The worst thing that Paul and Sarah did was not execute Will when they first caught him. Never do anything nice for anyone. You’re not paranoid if they’re really out to get you. With no real thematic purpose other than proposing a nihilistic dismissal of concern for others and a pretentious subversion of traditional horror narrative, It Comes at Night is a waste of time and money. It might be worth watching on Netflix or Amazon Prime, if only for the performances and cinematography, but you shouldn’t pay for it specifically and regardless, you’ll forget it shortly after. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.